Unsaturated polyester and epoxy thermoset resins generally have shown steady growth over the past few years, and resin and compound suppliers are planning for more of the same in 1998.
Other thermosets, such as melamine, urea and phenolic molding compounds, face mature markets, and suppliers hope this year continues to bring new high-end, high-margin uses to compensate for drop-offs in general-purpose grades for plastics applications.
Unsaturated polyester was a 1997 growth leader in thermoset resins for plastics applications, according to an analysis of resin statistics released by the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
Plastics News multiplied SPI year-to-date figures for plastics-related end uses from October by 1.2 percent to estimate expected year-end totals, since SPI does not release official year-end market breakouts for several months. SPI's statistics include nonplastics uses for thermoset resins.
Using that method, SPI's statistics show sales and captive use of unsaturated polyester for reinforced and nonreinforced plastics applications grew about 5 percent from 1996-97, for a projected total of 1.58 billion pounds.
At least one analyst expects that trend to continue in 1998.
``There is a lot of sustained momentum in transportation and construction markets, particularly in high-end marine,'' composites consultant Joseph McDermott said by telephone from his Cresskill, N.J., office. He added that he expects ``incremental progress'' in other unsaturated polyester markets.
The automotive industry also is providing growth for some resin suppliers and compounders.
``I think that the [automotive] market is going to continue to grow for us,'' said Will Conner, automotive products manager in Southfield, Mich., for Cytec Industries Inc.
Perrysburg, Ohio-based Cytec produces polyester bulk molding compounds that have found increased use in various engine covers and other auto parts. Carmakers Saturn, Ford and Chrysler all have plans to use Cytec resins for new under-the-hood parts in 1998, Conner said.
Also driving new product and processing developments this year is the advent of new emissions regulations affecting the composites industry, John Schweitzer, technical director of SPI's Composites Institute said from his Ann Arbor, Mich., office. The Environmental Protection Agency is developing standards that will place new limitations on emissions of pollutants like styrene, he said. Many suppliers and molders are trying to get the jump on those standards, which will not be published until 2000, by coming out with low-emission materials and processes now. The industry is expected to come into compliance between 2000 and 2003, Schweitzer said.
Several fiberglass molders already are rolling out new, closed-molding processing methods aimed at reducing styrene emissions, McDermott said. Several resin suppliers also are coming out with products they say are more friendly to the environment.
Cook Composites and Polymers Co. of St. Louis is marketing low-styrene resins and gel coats for marine applications — with plans for more such products in the near future, said Scott Kaphingst, CCP marketing director.
Reichhold Chemicals Inc. of Research Triangle Park, N.C., also wants to make a splash this summer with a new low-styrene version of its Hydrex 100 vinyl ester resin for marine and other ``wet'' applications.
``There is a real big push to reduce styrene emissions,'' said Reichhold spokesman Phil Bridges. ``There is a market out there for low-styrene products.''
The new Hydrex resin has a 35 percent maximum styrene content, Bridges said.
Epoxy use in plastics applications grew a hefty 13 percent in 1997 compared with 1996, according to projections derived from SPI's October resin statistics.
Plastics-related end uses of epoxy topped out at about 120 million pounds in 1997, up from 1996's 106 million-pound total.
``Our general outlook is we expect a reasonably good year in 1998 after a good year in 1997. We believe that will be true for the industry as a whole,'' said Mark Siebert, Dow Chemical Co.'s marketing manager for epoxy coatings. ``We expect volumes to remain relatively stable going into 1998.''
But, he said he also expects pricing pressures to come from epoxy feedstocks.
``The supply of intermediates for epoxies will be balanced to
tight,'' Siebert said. He specifically noted tightness in epichlorohydrin and bisphenol A. ``That will imply some cost pressures for the industry,'' he said.
Dow is investing in its epoxy business, Siebert said. The Midland, Mich.-based firm is expanding epichlorohydrin capacity by 250 million pounds at its Freeport, Texas, facility, which is targeted to come on stream by late 1998 or early 1999, he said.
``We're putting a lot of focus on growth of our epoxy business, specifically on growing the pie,'' Siebert said. ``There is also significant growth potential in a lot of our traditional markets.''
He said Dow expects growth in both photocure resins, used in stereolithography for rapid prototyping, and powder coatings.
Even ``mature'' markets for epoxies, such as electronics and container and industrial coatings, have room to grow globally in 1998, Siebert said.
Formaldehyde-based thermoset molding compounds have been decreasing in total sales and captive use, but resin firms making melamine, phenolic and urea compounds have found some markets providing high-margin growth for otherwise-mature products.
Sales and captive use of urea and melamine molding compounds fell about 1 percent between 1996 and 1997, according to an analysis of SPI's October resin statistics.
SPI does not break out urea and melamin e molding compound figures specifically, because too few firms participate in its survey. Molding compounds are listed in the ``all other uses'' category of SPI's monthly statistical report. SPI also cautions that figures for those years are not directly comparable because 1997 numbers could include Canadian production not counted in 1996.
SPI does separate phenolic molding compounds from other phenolic products, such as coatings adhesives, and those numbers show a probable decline of about 3 percent from 1996 to an estimated 145 million pounds.
``These are mature products, so we're looking for steady growth, an onward and upward kind of thing,'' said Terry Steiner, marketing and technical sales director for phenolics supplier Plastics Engineering Co. of Sheboygan, Wis. ``One loses phenolics molding business to other materials in some cases, and gains it in others.''
The performance-to-price ratio on phenolics is ``pretty hard to beat,'' he said. Pricing pressure for phenolics will come from its main raw material — phenol.
``Phenol is at a relatively high price,'' Steiner said. ``We have to balance that pressure vs. the mindset of the industry of holding the line [on prices.]'' But, he added that his firm is optimistic enough about the future of phenolics that it is adding capacity for its Plenco-brand resins.
Cytec's recent purchase of Fiberite Inc. of Tempe, Ariz., also expands its composite products line to include phenolic molding compounds.
``Now we have the best of both worlds, phenolics as well as polyester,'' Cytec's Conner said.
Phenolic molding compounds are replacing metal and thermoplastics in engine and brake components because of phenolics' strength, low weight and high heat resistance, he said.
``There still is a lot of conversion from metal to plastics or composites,'' Conner said. ``That represents a big growth area.''